‘Kony 2012’ video makers: This isn’t a ‘slacktivist thing’
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A week after their “Kony 2012" video about a brutal African warlord exploded on the Internet, the activist filmmakers behind it have released a new Web film to answer questions about their finances and mission.
“I understand why people are wondering is this is just some slick, kind of fly-by-night slacktivist thing,” said Ben Keesey, CEO of Invisible Children, “when actually it’s not at all.... It’s connected to a really deep, thoughtful, very intentional and strategic campaign.”
Keesey spends much of the video answering critics who have said more of the group’s money should be spent in Uganda and neighboring countries on direct aid to children victimized by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.
Keesey goes on to explain how after leaving UCLA he joined a big accounting firm, only to make a career change to the children’s advocacy organization because he was so deeply moved by an earlier Invisible Children video.
The activist said he believes part of the criticism has come from confusion about the mission of Invisible Children, which is based in San Diego. He says “doing work on the ground” is just one of the organization’s imperatives, along with making films to bring more people to the cause of protecting children and “plugging that into existing advocacy campaigns.”
Dressed in a dark jacket and tie, Keesey speaks directly into the camera in the follow-up to the much slicker “Kony 2012" piece, which at least one tracking service says has gotten more than 100 million views since it was posted a week ago. Keesey concedes the activists have felt the sting of the criticism, then goes on to detail some of Invisible Children’s expenditures.
For the years 2007 through 2011, the group spent from 80% to 85% of the money it took in on “program expenses,” the video says.
Although the video does not say it, the three highest-paid employees made between $87,000 and $90,000 in 2010. The $90,000 figure is just at 1% of total expenditures, which charity watchdogs say is a threshold for appropriate levels of CEO pay in nonprofits.
And total salaries and benefits for Invisible Children in 2010 made up just under 17% of total expenditures, which is lower than many more prominent nonprofits, some of which pay out as much as half of their money in salaries and benefits.
The new video shows some of the projects the group says it has in place in Africa, including a radio system used to warn villages when Kony’s followers are close by. The early warnings are crucial, the activists say, because Kony’s hundreds of soldiers often sweep down unexpectedly and kidnap children, whom they turn into soldiers or sex slaves. The video also shows construction of a children’s center.
Keesey also responds in the video to complaints about spending on travel. “Some people have said ‘Is that just the management team flying around and staying in nice hotels?’ No, not at all. That’s totally not true.” He explains that much of the money is to ship teams around the country to screen Invisible Children videos, about 3,000 times a year at high schools and colleges. The group also spends money to bring survivors of Kony’s forces to the U.S. to raise awareness here.
Keesey explains that overhead has recently grown slightly, in part because of one outside grant of $330,000 that was given specifically for “operational expenses” and “data systems.”
Some of the other language in the follow-up video seems designed to attend to complaints about the “Kony 2012" video, which came from other aid groups and from experts in African affairs. Keesey acknowledges, for instance, that Kony’s army is now in a “weakened state.” But rather than meaning attention to the LRA is now misguided, as at least some have argued, Keesey said it’s time to stop the rebel leader once and for all.
Unlike the original video, told almost entirely through the words of Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, the follow-up features some of the group’s partners in Africa. “I feel so proud taking the leadership of Invisible Children,” program director Jolly Okot says on camera, “because Invisible Children wants to invest, one in local leadership, two in a long-term development program.”
Attending to another complaint about imprecision in the original, the new video also acknowledges that the Kony army has moved out of Uganda into neighboring countries. But it says Invisible Children has programs in those nations, too.
The group said it intends to keep responding to as many questions as it can. It requested the queries be sent via Twitter to @Invisible, marked with the hash tag #askicanything.
Signing off at the end of the eight-minute video, Keesey says “Thank you so much” and gives a peace sign.
-- James Rainey and Ken Bensinger